Archive for September, 2009

Back to blogging

P1000833So I have finally made it back from the 69th SVP and 57th SVPCA meeting in lovely Bristol. This has allowed me to catch up with many old friends and colleagues (both in science and outside) and meet those I have long ‘known’ online but never met like Tom Holtz and Larry Witmer as well as finally meeting people like Jack Horner and Dave Norman. Along the way I took in probably 50 talks, at least as many posters, spoke to dozens of researchers, sorted through masses of new ideas and projects and got old tasks back on track. I will of course be getting back to Anchiornis shortly and of course have more SVP-y things to come, but in the meantime have a few photos from the conference:#

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Anchiornis – again

Anchiornis. Modified from Hu et al., 2009.

Anchiornis. Modified from Hu et al., 2009.

OK by now the ‘secret’ is probably out and the ‘new basal avialian’ that my colleagues and I described earlier this year, Anchiornis, turns out not to be an avialian (or avian if you prefer) at all, but in fact is a very basal troodontid. Those new specimens I mentioned at the time brought in a ton of extra detail and information that allowed researchers to firm up the diagnosis of this animal and show conclusively that it is indeed a troodontid. There are some important and interesting lessons to take from this, both in terms of theropod and bird relationships and how new information changes perspectives. To try and avoid me rambling on and keeping the issues clear, I have listed them:
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The head of Quetzalcoatlus

P10000Well after a typically exhausting trans-continental flight (well, two continents really) I’m back in the UK though tired and perhaps understandably not best suited to blogging, but with SVP and a well earned break for me coming up, this may be it for a while (bar the odd post like this I suspect). So for now, have the head of the giant azdarchid pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus taken in the Museo del Desierto in Mexico. Although there is some skull material for this genus, it has never been well described and is incomplete hence the variation you can see among the various reconstructions of the head though this one is pretty typical and probably fairly accurate.

The palaeo paper challenge

Andy of the Open Source Palaeontologist and I were recently chatting online and were lamenting the inevitable problem of ‘the unfinished paper’. Most researchers have a project or two (or anything up to 20) that were started and then kind of stalled for various reasons – uncooperative coauthors, being unable to find the elusive essential paper, other projects taking priority, or just general malaise. It’s left as a few pages of notes, or unreferenced, without figures or a key analysis complete or whatever. It’s good science and publishable, it’s just not done. Without a good incentive to get them finished off (like a rival group) or them getting out of date (the stuff is interesting but not ground breaking and will not revolutionise the field when it comes out, but it’s not old either) these things can last for ever.

Both of us have these kinds of papers knocking around and we are far from the only ones. As such with SVP around the corner we decided to issue the palaeo paper challenge. If you have a palaeo paper that really needs to be finished off at some point then we challenge you to sign up here and try to get it done this year. If so, simply leave a comment over on the OSP in the comment thread and we’ll tot them all up in a few days and create a register of those taking part (so you can’t back out!). There is no need to let everyone know exactly what it is you are working on (if people want to keep things private, that’s fine) but of course juicy details will be welcome. Andy and I will also both be canvassing at SVP and if you want to encourage others to join, do please mention this on your own blogs etc.

This should serve as both self-motivation to get the project done and a nice little race to see who can finish first and get their paper submitted or in print. The real challenge of course is simply to get it done, so we are setting Jan 1st as your ‘official’ deadline – if you are joining the challenge you’ll have about three months to get it done. There are hundreds if not thousands of these papers languishing on hard drives so let’s try and get a few of them out there.

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Footprints and footpads – trusting those tricky tracks

Just a quick point this time out on an obscure (as far as the literature goes at least) and unusual little fact about footprints. If you look at the palm of you hand it is pretty obvious the each joint of the fingers and even the base of each finger on the palm has a fleshy pad on top of it, such that if you were to place you hand on some nice soft mud, you would get both a good representation of your hand *and* this would also give you a pretty clear picture of where the joints are (the gaps) and the bones are (the depressions in the substrate). You might therefore think that this pattern is pretty much the same for other animals and that hand (or foot) prints give a clear picture of the actual bones involved.

Milan 2006

A rhea foot bones superimposed on the pads and gaps of the foot. Modified from Milan, 2006.

Not so in fact (as you have probably already guessed) and for two big reasons. First off while obviously humans do at least have a nice ratio of pads-to-bones and gaps-to-joints this is not consistent. First of all many animals do not have this ratio and foot-pads can cover several bones, or several pads can cover one bone, and gaps can occur in the middle of bones as opposed to at joints. There is also inevitably an issue of natural variation here and not all individuals have the same pad structure on their feet as other members of the species and some are highly variable and can even be different on the left and right feet of an individual. As such the number and position of pads and gaps can be very different to the actual bones and joints and not much of an indicator of the anatomy of the foot.

Secondly, footprints themselves are enormously variable. Obviously it can make a huge difference whether you are making tracks on mud or sand or hard soil or whatever, and if you are walking or running you can end up leaving rather different prints. However it is perhaps not obvious just how variable these can be. You might think that if you maintained a steady pace and gait over a fairly uniform surface then the prints would be consistent. Not so – even here pad and gaps can appear and disappear from track to track and between left and right.

All this variation I should point out has been recorded in living animals and trackways from live animals including controlled experiments. As such we can be pretty confident that these effects are real and a result of variation from the animals themselves and the tracks being laid down in addition to of course the inevitable variation as a result of preservation and erosion of trackways before their discovery. The practical upshot of this is that tracks become even harder to identify and analyse since for some tetrapods at least (and much of this work has been done on ratites and thus is particularly relevant to theropods) the actual pattern of the pads and gaps in the footprint can have little to do with the foot bones that they enclosed. In short don’t trust those tricky tracks.

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Beijing Zoo Too


I do actually now have a *lot* of photos of the Beijing zoo, so given that I’m unlikely to find a useful forum for many outside the zoo review I though I should just stick them up here while it’s vaguely relevant. Photos again by myself and Roger Close.

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Beijing Zoo

metalGiven the raft of zoo reviews on here of late it’s remiss of me not to have covered the Beijing zoo since not only is it actually quite good, but I have been probably half a dozen times in the last year and it’s opposite the IVPP. One partial reason was a lack of good photos (although a few have turned up on here from time to time such as bustards, vultures and partridge) and I have Mesozoic bird expert Roger Close to thank for some of the photos below (the rest are mine, but as ever please ask before using them). Right, onto the review.

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Pssst – wanna be a palaeontologist?

My target audience on the Musings is, at least in my mind, are those people who are not experts in dinosaurs or even necessarily that interested in the past world but still find life (prehistoric and otherwise) of general interest but perhaps find the mainstream media too lightweight and full on technical papers and blogs too detailed. However, if you ever wanted to make the step up and actually, you know, be a scientist here’s your chance.

logo_big1Andy Farke, Matt Wedel and Mike Taylor have got together and perhaps insanely created the Open Dinosaur Project (which to me sounds like a veterinary issue). What is the wondrous concept I hear you ask? Well a lot of dinosaur research at the coalface simply revolves around collecting data – most notably measurements. How big each individual bone was in various dimensions can potentially tell you a huge amount about an animal: not just did it have long legs, but were they longer than it’s relatives, absolutely longer or proportionally longer, where they all longer or just the front legs, was this linked to their habitats or predators? This is great in theory but as I can testify, when you want to compare a few hundred animals, scattered in a few dozen collections worldwide and described in a thousand different journal articles it can take months of work to produce the data to make one graph that will support one paragraph in a published paper. It is, in short, labour intensive.

The solution? Open source palaeontology – if you have an hour to spare, pick up a scientific journal, get some data for them and enter it on their online database. And then, this is the good bit, not only will you be directly contributing to palaeontological research but they will invite you to be an author on the paper. Yes, you too can become a real published scientist with a real academic paper to your name. And the website contains ALL the information you need – it matters not if you have never read a paper before or don’t know your humeri from your femora, it’s all there. And don’t worry about access to the papers either – most of them are freely available online these days. All you need is a few *minutes*, an internet connection and a bit of motivation / interest in dinosaurs and if you are reading this blog you probably have all of them already. So head on over there and become a real researcher.


Since they have also asked me to try to generate a bit of discussion I will say this – I think they are going to run into some huge problems for all kinds of reasons and while I sincerely hope for the best and wish them well, I strongly suspect this may end in time consuming frustration. However (and this a ten storey ‘However’ with wall to wall carpeting throughout, chandeliers and a large sign outside says “This is a large ‘However’”) this would in itself be a good thing (the attempt, not the failure) – this kind of collaborative project whether between many academics or recruiting the public is likely to increase in science. More and more projects like this will appear (there are some like it on a much smaller scale) and learning how to do it, what the problems are and how to get past them will make the next attempt infinitely easier no matter how much of a failure this might be (and despite the pessimism above, they have a good shot at making this work). Good luck guys (you’ll probably need it).

And if you were wondering as I forgot to say so, their project is on ornithischian limb bones, hence the appearance of an iguanodontid in the middle of the text.

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Pterosaur wing folding

Yes, it’s another picture from Stuttgart (hey, they have some fantastic models) but with a specific purpose this time out, to talk about the way the wings of pterosaurs fold. We have already covered on here the shape and structure of the pterosaurian wing, and the bony structure, and also the mechanism by which the wing finger might extend and retract but here I want to talk about what this might mean in practical terms for a living animal, or at least how things might look.
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Integumentary variation

IMGP3940Well the title is at least a bit of a give away, but those interested in the covering of dinosaurs may find this close-up interesting. If anyone ever asks you to name an animal where two kinds of integument interlace and alternate with each other, you are likely to be stuck for an answer. Sure birds have scales and feathers and ‘bald’ patches, but not together (except perhaps at the transition point). However it should be quite clear that here there really are two very different structures, with longer thinner filaments sticking out from between the shorter and fluffier structures. If you want to guess what this is, the answer lies below the fold where a little more discussion is available.

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Dsungaripterus takes wing

DsungTime for a short and sweet picture post of a pterosaur mount in the air. This is one of several IVPP casts of the unusual pterodactyloid pterosaur Dsungaripterus. The dsungaripterid pterosaurs are oft times rather different to others and indeed are a unique group in that they seem to have proportionally rather heavier bones than other pterodactyloids. Dsungaripterus itself is interesting in having the odd combination of an upturned and toothless beak tip and then especially robust and rounded teeth at the back of the jaw. These are ultra weird in that the surrounding bone grows over the teeth such that in older individuals you can’t always see the tooth at all for some sockets, just a rounded lump of bone. I’ll leave it there simply because I have more planned on dsungaripterids and don’t want to write a big post right now, more to come later (at some indeterminate future point).

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Seoul Grand Park Zoo

IMGP4018One of the benefits of my recent trip to Korea was an opportunity to visit the Grand Park zoo in Seoul. This is (supposedly) one of the biggest in the world and I can believe it, in 5 hours I barely stopped far 15 minutes for lunch and still did not quite see everything and they were building several new and large enclosures while I was there. It is, in short massive. These reviews of zoos and museums can get a bit same-y since most places have much the same animals / exhibits presented in similar ways, so I’ll keep this short and let the photos take over.

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